If you're trying to analyze F. Scott Fitzgerald's jazz age novel The Great Gatsby and you're not thinking about Dante's Inferno, you're missing an obvious connection.
The connection is easy to spot and hard to dispute, though it rarely comes up in discussion of the book. I haven't heard it mentioned at all during the big media buildup to the bombastic new Baz Luhrmann/Leonardo DiCaprio Great Gatsby movie that's opening this weekend, though I have read a few clueless movie-tie-in articles that strain to explain the enduring cultural significance of Fitzgerald's novel. These articles usually miss the point by describing The Great Gatsby as a novel about the American dream of wealth and success, or something pedestrian like that.
Explanations of Gatsby as a Randian epic about a businessman don't illuminate the book very well, and neither do theories that Nick Carraway was gay or that Jay Gatsby was African-American. I tend to stick with the standard approach: The Great Gatsby is a chic and tawdry tale of love and romantic illusion. It's written in lush but light poetic prose in a heated tone that evokes a dramatic sense of spiritual hazard. The spiritual hazard is where Dante comes in.
As a writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald liked to paint modern society in starkly religious or biblical terms. He does not appear to have been very religious, but he was raised Catholic, viewed Christian ideals warmly, and seems to have been especially fascinated with concepts of Satanic guilt and damnation. This is most clear in his titles: his first novel was called This Side of Paradise, his second The Beautiful and Damned. His short stories include: Babylon Revisited, Jacob's Ladder, Absolution.
But The Great Gatsby, the novel he intended as the pinnacle of his mature literary achievement, is also his most ambitious spiritual work, as it apppears to be loosely grounded upon Dante's Inferno, the first and most famous part of the Italian poet's epic The Divine Comedy, in which a traveler is escorted on a colorful guided tour of Hell.
Two excellent new books remind me of the vortex of interests that's always coursed beneath the surface here at Litkicks -- a vortex, in fact, that is central to the literary/artistic sensibility that has fascinated and informed me through my whole life. These interests roughly include music and literature and art and poetry and comedy and New York City, and the two excellent new books are Text and Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll: The Beats and Rock Culture by Simon Warner and The Best of Punk Magazine by John Holmstrom.
I can't actually review either of these books, because they're too close to me (in two separate ways). Text and Drugs and Rock and Roll is a thick and extensive study of various connections between popular literary and musical underground scenes of the past several decades, including both essays and interviews by Simon Warner, a Beat Generation scholar who teaches music courses at the University of Leeds in England. This is a subject I have explored in depth here on Litkicks, and Simon was kind enough to include an interview with me in this book. I'm particularly proud to be in this book now that I see what a handsome volume it is, and I'm glad that I got to spout off a bit on why "Tangled Up in Blue" is a great example of Bob Dylan writing Beat, and why Jay-Z reminds me of Jack Kerouac. The book also includes interviews with Jonah Raskin, David Amram, Michael McClure, Michael Horovitz, Ronald Nameth, Jim Sampas, Pete Brown, Steven Taylor, Kevin Ring and the late Larry Keenan, as well as in-depth sections on Jim Carroll, Peter Orlovsky, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Neal Cassady, David Meltzer, Patti Smith, Joe Strummer, Richard Hell, Genesis P-Orridge, Pete Molinari, Ben Gibbard and Tuli Kupferburg.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about drunks. Specifically, I've been thinking about literature written by drunks and/or about drinking. The positive reaction to a piece on this topic called Ten Best Books by Drunks that I posted on Legs McNeil’s and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me website tells me it’s a subject that occupies many others besides myself.
Self-destruction with booze seems to go hand in glove with pen and paper.
Two recent biographies have helped catalyze my thinking on this, boiling it down to one large question, with many residual ripple-like queries. The two biographies are Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson by Blake Bailey and Charles Bukowski by David Stephen Calonne, a part of Reaktion's "Critical Lives" series of biographies. The large question these books -- and the ten books cited at the link above -- raise is this: Why does literature about self-destruction in general (booze, drugs, sex, madness, etc.) captivate us so? The residual ripples: Are we captivated by the “there but for fortune go I” aspect of the finished work? Do we admire the sheer madness of such lives—the breaking of every taboo in sight—and are self-protective enough not to “follow them down”? Are we secretly jealous? And then, what about the biological matter of alcohol’s effect on inspiration: Does alcohol fuel inspiration or does it merely cool the engine down after the creative spark is spent?
Because the enigmatic South African novelist J. M. Coetzee's first novel Dusklands is out of print, I always figured the book must have been a weak start to a great career.
Dusklands was published in 1974, years before Coetzee started hitting his powerful stride with The Life and Times of Michael K. and Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello. Since I couldn't buy the book in bookstores or order a new copy online, I satisfied myself at first by reading summaries of what Dusklands appeared to be: a divided narrative constructed of two invented "found manuscripts", the first an American military psychologist's report of propaganda efforts during the Vietnam War, the second an early Dutch South African explorer's report of a journey into the unknown regions of the continent.
Eventually, as I recently waited for Coetzee's new novel The Childhood of Jesus to be released in my country, I broke down and ordered a used copy of Dusklands online. It probably wouldn't be any great Coetzee, I figured, but I wouldn't mind a small minor work, a glimpse at the uncertain youthful voice of a later genius.
Oh. My. God. Did I have it wrong.
Now that I've read this tour de force, which may be the most bleak and upsetting book J. M. Coetzee has ever written, I am wondering if perhaps it is out of print for a completely different reason than I thought. Perhaps it's because the book's disturbing violence and sense of menace is too hard for readers to handle. Imagine a combination of Joseph Conrad and Harold Pinter -- with a lot more blood and torture. But this disturbing book appears also to be at least a small masterpiece. I remained gripped and compelled by the narrative for days after reading the final pages.
Religious faith is not something one can rationalize, or shove into a semantic corner, or elaborate in words. It's about the mystery of existence, our place in the cosmos, the nature of life, the inevitability of physical death. Are there any subjects more all-consuming than these? Even atheists ponder these subjects with, yes, near-religious fervor. Much of this seems like common sense, but common sense often balks when it encounters the first inklings of religious zealotry. Even people who consider themselves religious (whatever exactly that means) turn into eye-rolling cynics when evident "wackos" of different faiths appear, and those who regularly blame religion for humanity’s myriad ills are always ready with the I-told-you-so’s.
This is the sort of throat-clearing one needs to do when talking about, say, Scientology. Two new books shed some light into the dark corners where this church, founded by L. Ron Hubbard in 1950, resides.
(Actually, 1950 was the year Hubbard’s groundbreaking book Dianetics: The Modern Science Of Mental Health (English) was published; the Church of Scientology was officially opened for business in 1952).
One book is a firsthand tell-all expose of the excesses of the organization by a former insider. Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige-Hill. What gives this book a little more oomph than previous exposes of Scientology—and there are countless testimonials to corroborate the revelations herein floating around the Internet, too many, in fact, for even Scientology to snuff out—is that the author is the niece of the current head of the church, David Miscavige. This church leader is, by most accounts, an unaccountable tyrant who tolerates no dissension in the ranks. In short, he is like the head of all religious organizations, from Mullah Omar and the Ayatollah to the Pope and Jim Jones and Sri Rajneesh. Cross them at your peril.
Despite the enormous impact of the Watergate scandal, the actual purpose of the break-in of the Democratic National Committee offices has never been conclusively established.
-- Wikipedia, The Watergate Scandal.
I was thinking about this long-mysterious motive after reading Thomas Mallon's subtle, well-imagined historical novel Watergate, which speculates (among other things) that the purpose of the illegal spy operation in June 1972 that eventually brought down Richard Nixon's presidency was to find evidence of a Fidel Castro/Cuban connection to the Democratic party. This is one of several common explanations for the spy operation.
Another one, suggested by Bob Haldeman and tentatively endorsed by Jeb Magruder, is that Nixon wanted to find evidence that the reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes was secretly funding the Democrats. Others have suggested that Nixon wanted dirt on Ted Kennedy, and a recent book called Watergate: The Hidden History: Nixon, The Mafia, and The CIA by Lamar Waldron tries to build a case for a Mafia connection. Still others have guessed that the whole botched operation was a trap by Nixon's opponents, intended to embarrass the President (if this was the case, the trap was an amazing success).
I don't think that any of the above answers are very good, and I have a better one to suggest. The motive for the Watergate break-in is something primal, dreadfully familiar, awkwardly obvious. The answer is there in plain sight -- and it's also certainly there in the memoirs written by the principal Watergate criminals, particularly Blind Ambition by John Dean, An American Life: One Man's Road to Watergate by Jeb Magruder, The Ends of Power by Bob Haldeman, Witness to Power: The Nixon Years by John Ehrlichman, Will by G. Gordon Liddy and Born Again by Chuck Colson (all of which I've carefully read and reread to help me reach the conclusion I'm about to explain).
Watergate is not a very distinctive title for a novel about the 1972-74 USA presidential scandal by Thomas Mallon. It was, however, a great name for the scandal.
The term "Watergate" originally referred to the office-hotel complex in downtown Washington DC where, on a quiet day in June 1972, a gang of hapless spies with indirect connections to the Nixon White House were caught in a botched bugging operation. The name "Watergate" always felt right for the scandal, even though it's a made-up word, the invention of a real estate corporation. The "water" refers to the Potomac River and Rock Creek, which merge at the complex's northwestern edge, and the "gate" does not seem to refer to any specific thing at all. (UPDATE: see comments below for a variety of interesting explanations for this name.) But the Watergate complex was a cool, exciting new locale in 1972, a swirling, innovative work of postmodern architecture that belongs to the same era of urban design as New York City's World Trade Center. The image of water crashing through a barrier seems to evoke something meaningful about the entire scandal that was born there.
It's not clear what Thomas Mallon was aiming for when he gave his imaginative novel the flat title Watergate. There are already many books called Watergate, and this one is different because it's a sensitive, smart literary historical novel, a work of creative invention. Fortunately, the title is the only thing about this clever, humane book that doesn't work. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and it helped me think about the years of Nixon's fall in a few new ways.
(Since literature and music are two of my biggest passions, I am naturally fascinated by rock memoirs. I find much significance within these books, and in the shadows that surround them. The Great Lost Rock Memoir is a new Literary Kicks series devoted to the art and psychology of the rock memoir, with a special emphasis on older books that may now be out of print. Today, we're examining the memoir of one of the most brilliant, innovative and courageous singer-songwriters of all time: Mr. Chuck Berry of St. Louis, Missouri.)
It's fitting that the guy who singlehandedly invented rock and roll when he recorded a song called "Mabellene" at Chess studios in Chicago on May 21, 1955 would later become an early innovator in the rock memoir field. Chuck Berry: The Autobiography was published in 1987, when the author was sixty years old. He wrote the book without a ghostwriter, and says so in the opening sentence:
This book is entirely written, phrase by phrase, by yours truly, Chuck Berry.
The prickly pride revealed in this declaration is familiar to anybody who follows Chuck Berry, who is famously irascible, contrary and unpredictable. His genius for spontaneous creativity mixed with interpersonal dysfunctionality is best shown by his typical refusal to rehearse with the backup bands hired to play behind him in concert. I've enjoyed a couple of Chuck Berry concerts, and I've seen how the edgy uncertainty of an unrehearsed band playing a headline show with a legend always adds some electricity to the room. The unpredictable liveliness of his shows is one reason that 86-year-old Chuck Berry still packs houses today (see him while you can).
He also writes an electrifying memoir, and not the superficial memoir one might expect. As a songwriter, Chuck Berry is rarely introspective or analytical. He's more of a humorist with a guitar, specializing in clever, naughty rhymes. His lyrics also reveal a warm emotional sensitivity, a breezy way with descriptive detail, and a big taste for delicious words in harmonious meters.
A few months ago, we discussed the disturbing suggestion that there could ever be a rulebook for drone warfare. Most of us are horrified by the fact that remote-control killer aircraft is now a "thing", and we should be.
But we should also be horrified by the thought of non-remote-controlled killer aircraft. A big news story broke in the United States of America last week when Rand Paul staged a filibuster in the Senate to ask whether or not a military drone could ever be used to kill an American citizen on American soil. This is a good question, but it makes no sense for Rand Paul to stop there, since there doesn't seem to be a big moral distinction between the use of a drone to kill an American citizen on American soil and the use of a drone to kill a non-American citizen on non-American soil. There also doesn't seem to be a big moral distinction between the use of a drone to kill any person on any soil and the use of a different weapon to do the same thing.
It's good that the scary new phenomenon of drone warfare is causing Americans to question the foundational principles of militarism, but this inquiry won't amount to much unless we are prepared to realize the obvious truth: militarism itself is the problem, and the entire institution of war should be the target of our protest. There are small glimmers of hope that the recent debate over drone warfare is leading a few smart thinkers to ask the bigger questions about militarism, even though many others who've heard about Paul's filibuster are missing the point.
I've been trying to develop a theory on this blog -- a theory that I'm finding difficult to explain because the basic idea is so obvious that it barely merits the lofty term 'theory'. And yet it must be a theory, because its implications are important, and stand in surprising contrast to the way we tend to think about global conflicts.
I'm talking about the idea, previously described here in blog posts titled What Militarism Does To Our Brains and The Trauma Theory, that the primary cause of current and future war on our planet is current and past war. War is a self-perpetuating phenomenon, a feedback monster.